Course in Iñupiaq Land Use Values and Resources

The Journey

A Trip of a Lifetime

In this Learning Center, I want to share an incredible experience I had during the summer of 2009. I was invited to attend a ten-day course in Inupiaq land use and values, put on by the Inupiaq people and the North Slope Borough.  They ran the class in a way that no one will ever forget: they took us out on the tundra in the foothills of the Brooks Range to LIVE the experience. I hope you enjoy it!

Journey Introduction

I should first start out by mentioning that I learned that I would be participating in this course approximately nine days before my scheduled departure.  Therefore, when I say "I had no idea what to expect" I truly meant it. I was asked "do you want to go to Alaska?", and I quickly replied "yes!"

I have grown up in New England, and have been working in Massachusetts for the past four years at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

I work directly with the photographic collections at the NBWM, which include a large Arctic Collection.  So, I can say that prior to this experience, I knew a small amount about the terrain and the culture.  Minimal at best.  But still, it is my belief that when someone asks you if you would like to partake in something outside of your comfort zone (no matter how vastly outside), you say "yes" and contemplate later. 

To see all of the photos from my trip, visit my flickr site.

The Course That Took me to the Brooks Range

This is the description I read of the course before I left New England:

This course will provide an overview of the core elements and holistic worldview of our geography and ecosystem. Through a hands-on camp experience, students will examine the complex relationships between the people, the land, the river, and the natural resources of the Arctic Brooks Range.

Culturally appropriate behaviors in the treatment of the land and resources will be discussed and modeled, including understanding of North Slope geographical landmarks, traditional land use inventory, camps, hunting areas, animals of the area, place names and historic use, flora and fauna, hunting and subsistence. Demonstrations of the appropriate uses of animals and other resources will be incorporated throughout the course.

Course Objectives and Student Outcomes:

The course will offer students the opportunity to participate in traditions of cultural, and subsistence land use activities under the guidance of experienced instructors, guides, elders and hunters. During the camp, participants will participate in preparation of camp, traveling to and from camp grounds, set up camp, hunting and food gathering experiences and learn firsthand how we subsist on the land and the rivers using skills and technologies stemming back thousands of years.

The Journey begins . . .

I'm not one for long flights, but the excitment and the unknown of what I was about to encounter kept me going.  I knew a little about what was to happen.  I was going to be camping (and/or fishing, and/or hunting) in the Arctic Circle of Alaska.  I knew it was going to be cold (just because I thought I knew it, it didn't end up being all that true), I knew that they would not have french fries and milk (two of my favorite things), I knew that I was going to be completely in awe the whole time. 

I arrived in Fairbanks and was taken to my hotel.  Already was I amazed, it was 2:00 in the morning and it was bright as day.  As I entered my hotel room, I was greeted by a pamplet "Staying Alive in the Arctic", not such a great start.

Arrival to "the Pass"

The village of Anaktuvuk Pass came about when in 1938 several Nunamiut families returned to the mountains from the coast after an absence of about ten years.  They were later joined by other Nunamiuts.  It became an offical city in 1959.  Anaktuvuk is a city and mountain pass that lies slightly north of the Brooks Range in North Slope Borough in Alaska, with a population of roughly 300 people. Anaktuvuk Pass is the last remaining settlement of the Nunamiut (People of the Land) Inupiaq Eskimos in Alaska.

To get to the village I took a two-hour plane ride from Fairbanks.  Plane is the only way in an out of the village, and it is one of those "puddle-jumping, eight-seater types".

The course consisted of 21 people: 12 "students" (who were mainly teachers from  Alaska and the North Western Continental US), three village elders, and six guides.

I arrived to the village late (great start) after everyone had already met and were starting to learn some basic ground rules for our camping trip to "Praise the Lord Creek":

  • We will bring two dogs for bear/wolf lookout
  • If you go off, go in pairs and tell a guide
  • Make LOTS of noise, cough, sing, talk (to scare the bears away)
  • If a bear does come close to camp, a guide will shoot close to it to scare it off
  • Weather takes precedence; our plans will change day-to-day according to the weather (I would find out later that this is basically a rule for all Inupiaq living)
  • The bathroom? Oh, it's all around you
  • Everyone will be responsible for chores: cooks, dish washers, clean up crew (burn what we can of trash), wood gatherers, snow gatherers (for water)

From The Eskimo of North Alaska by Norman A. Chance (1966):

"The only truly inland north Alaskan Eskimo are the Nunamiut (People of the Land), a small group of related families who live in the Anaktuvuk Pass region of the Brooks Range and along the Kobuk and Noatak rivers.  They are the last remnants of more than 3,000 Nunamiut who once lived in the mountains and along the inland river system of nothern Alaska...

The present-day diet is a blend of both traditional and modern foods.  All Eskimo with sufficient capital are able to buy a wide variety of Western foods at local cooperative or trader's stores.  In addition to basic items such as tea, sugar, flower, and canned milk, most families regularly purchase canned fruits, bread and crackers, candy, tobacco, and other easily available goods.

The bulk of the food derives from traditional sources, however.  Meat from the whale, seal, and caribou is stored regularly in ice cellars to be available when needed.  Much of the meat is prepared by boiling, although large amounts of raw and dried meat is also consumed.  Caribou is the preferred food; seal meat is the least desired and usually reserved for the dogs."

From The North Alaskan Eskimo, A Study in Ecology and Society by Robert F. Spencer (1959):

"Quite apart from the importance of the house in whatever form as a shelter, there were significant attitudes which surround the dwelling and which should be evaluated in order to give proper focus to the relations between house and society.  The dwelling was the center of activity for the nuclear family, and while it has been shown that the personnel of such a group might change with carying conditions, the attachment to the house was an emotional one and very strong.  For the individuals who resided in it, it was ever a source of refuge and sanctuary."

From The North Alaskan Eskimo, A Study in Ecology and Society by Robert F. Spencer (1959):

"The small band of Eskimo which continues to reside in the foothills along the Killik River, moving into Anaktuvuk Pass and the area of Chandler Lake, still makes use of an aboriginal house type.  This is the iccellik, so named from the iccuk, a caribou hide used as a cover.  It is a portable, tentlike structure made from caribou hides stretched over a willow frame."

This photo from the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum at Anaktuvuk Pass shows the house, one of several types the Nunamiut used traditionally.

From "The Eskimo of North Alaska" by Norman A. Chance (1966):

"The typical Ipiutak house was about twelve to fifteen square feet with sod-covered walls sloping in toward a rool resting on four corner posts.  Low benches on three sides of the house were used for sleeping, which left a small floor area, and a shallow depression in the center served as a fireplace."

From "The Eskimo of North Alaska" by Norman A. Chance (1966):

"Modern Eskimo villages vear little physical resemblence to those of precontact times.  the small driftwood frame and sod houses that once symbolized man's habitation onthe north Alaskan coast now have been replaced by an assortment of Western-style homes ranging from one-room huts, with a single plastic window or skylight, to well-designed multiroom dwellings... Due to the hugh cost of paint and minimal deterioration of wood in this climate, few houses are painted."